I was having dinner Christmas Eve 2015 at restaurant in the beautiful Sonoma Valley, California. My dining companion asked me to choose a red from the wine list. As I scanned the list my eye lit upon a Chianti Classico for about $45. Then a Barolo caught my eye—for $190! Both are excellent Italian red wines. The price differential, however, was breathtaking, especially when one considers that it wasn’t that long ago, perhaps 30 years, that Barolos were pretty much unknown to the world, and locally in northern Italy only as (to paraphrase an old Barolo farmer) an unpleasant sweetish wine that tasted more like bad Marsala than one of Italy’s finest red wines. I chose the Chianti Classico for our dinner, and, intrigued by the price differential with the Barolo, resolved on delving into the history behind this wine’s rapid emergence from obscure Italian red wine to Italy’s most prestigious.
Nebbiolo, the red grape native to the Langhe Hills of the Barolo appellation, travelled an uncertain road to recognition. Until the 1970s, the region was dying from centuries of stagnation. Barolo farmers were living in poverty. They were lucky to get a dollar a bottle for their mediocre table wines. Then something happened, a spark, that inspired one enterprising young Barolo farmer, Elio Altare, to take a short trip into Burgundy, a trip that revolutionized the course of history for the Langhe Hills of Barolo region, and its farmers.
This spark, according to Altare, was a hungry stomach, and is documented in a 2014 film The Barolo Boys. (The Barolo Boys – Stuffilm Creativeye A.P.S., available through Amazon). The story that I discovered in this little film is intriguing. In the opening scenes, we meet an older Elio Altare, whose family had farmed in the Langhe Hills of Barolo for 100 years. Altare explains to us that it was hunger that drove him as a young man in 1975 to do something about his plight as a Nebbiolo wine grape grower. “All revolutions begin on an empty belly, “he says, speaking directly to the cameras. “We were in real need, we were living in poverty. [Farming] was just about survival: no profit, no investment, nothing.” In 1969.when he was just 19, he says, they were still farming with ox. By the time he had reached the age of 25 (1975) he was at the breaking point. A buyer had come for the grapes, but the price was to be negotiated only after the grapes were picked. “Can you imagine my frustration? Nobody knew Barolo!” he exclaims.
So in 1976, driven by his frustration and his empty stomach, he got into his car and drove over the border to Burgundy, which was long known for its world-class wines. Approaching one winery, he met the owner just as he was stepping into his Ferrari, and told him that he wanted to taste some wines. The gentleman said he was just leaving for Cannes, where he kept his yacht. Altare was shocked by the contrast between himself, who had to sleep in his car because he couldn’t afford a hotel room, and this French farmer. “Why do these French [Burgundian] wines sell for as much as 20 times more than our Barolos?” he wondered to himself.
The answer was practically staring him in the face: “Our Barolos didn’t bring pleasure,” he was forced to realize. Altare didn’t bring back any secrets from France as to how the Burgundian winemakers achieved their success, but he did bring back a sense of a wine’s potential to achieve greatness, and when greatness is achieved, it brings pleasure. And when a wine brings pleasure, wine lovers will pay a fair price for it. The question for Altare became how to bring out the greatness in his Barolos.
Barolo was traditionally just a table wine. Every farmer had a vineyard, and the grapes and wine were a part of the farmers’ daily nutrition and income. The wine sold for about $1/bottle. “For 100 years,” says Altare’s daughter in the film, “we had gasoline fumes [from the gasoline powered motors for the ventilation and heating fans], chicken shit, and wine in the same cellar.” The containers for the wine were decades-old tonneaus and casks, the bigger and older the better. “No wonder the wine wasn’t good,” she added.
From wine journals being published about that time, Altare discovered two basic principles to producing greatness in wines, revolutionary principles for the Langhe Hills, commonplace by today’s standards: green-harvesting (crop-thinning) to produce more richly flavored grapes; and ageing the wine in French oak barriques: “We used to leave everything on the vine,” said one 89-year-old pruner in the film. “We made a lot of red table wine. Now, we have to leave grapes on the ground.” This practice was bitterly opposed by older family members, who saw this practice as an “act of contempt,” said Chiara Boschis. “There was this tension of searching for quality and more quality. We really wanted to make the best wine in the world.”
(The practice of cluster-thinning also caused great consternation even to California grape growers, especially Zinfandel growers, into the 1990s.)*
So the young Barolo farmers, understanding that such practices were necessary to create more alluring wines, persevered, going into their vineyards at dawn to take even more clusters off while their elders were still asleep. And since many of the best wines in the world were being aged in French oak barriques, Altare decided it was time for Barolo farmers to give them a try. “Why shouldn’t we experiment, too?” he queried.
In 1983, a wine-loving banker from Milan brought two French 225 liters barriques to Altare’s winery, the first such small oak casks brought into the Langhe Hills
The results of these combined practices of green harvest and ageing their Barolos in French oak barriques appeared in the enthusiastically-received 1985, ’86, and ’87 vintages.
Soon, French oak barriques had become a fixture throughout the wineries of the Langhe Hills, especially among the younger Barolo farmers.
But implementing these practices, notably adopting French oak barriques for ageing, came with some heavy personal costs. When Altare went into the family cellar and began destroying all the old casks and vats accumulated over decades, his father did not see these actions as a bold and progressive move towards making a great wine; he saw them as a gross affront. To these older Barolo farmers, should any of their oak casks be found to impart oak flavor to the wines, these wines were sold as bulk, and the casks destroyed. Great wines can be aged in older, larger casks and tonneaux, since they can supply the oxygenation necessary for wine ageing. It’s just that older, neutral casks and barrels do not impart any oak character to the wines—a character and flavor staunchly rejected by the traditional Barolo farmers.
So for the senior Altare, his son’s bringing in 225-liter French oak bariques for the specific purpose of imparting oak flavor and character to Barolo wines was an abomination. Within days, he had driven into the village to change his will, disinheriting his progressive son. Two years later, he died, leaving Elio nothing. “He was convinced I had gone crazy,” said Elio
But he hadn’t gone crazy, nor had the other young farmers who were seeking just such a new character and flavor for their Barolos. Young Barolo farmers like Elio Altare, explained the narrator, were ready to leave the tradition of agricultural poverty while having no wish to leave their land. They had seen the possibilities in discovering the greatness in their Barolos through these two “revolutionary” steps, and were determined to wrest the region from the clutches of their fathers’ traditions, and from centuries of stagnation to establish a new direction.
As it turns out, these eager young farmers “ . . . were at the right place at the right time.” In 1982, the film’s narrator explains, Italy had won the World Cup in Spain; by 1989, the Berlin Wall had come down, and the stock market was on the upswing. There was an economic boom. Italy was riding high. People were experiencing a lightness and joy in their lives for the first time after the war. They were in a good mood, looking for good times, and ready for wines that gave pleasure. In the midst of culture-shaping world events, the winds of change had definitely begun to blow. “After years of stagnation, nothing will ever be the same again,” concludes the narrator. The cultural and economic changes in Italy had sufficiently developed to point where people could afford wine that gave pleasure. The Barolo Boys were poised to begin making just such a wine, and in this way, to begin earning the living that they deserved as farmers.
Also, about this time there was an (infamous) occurrence that worked in the Barolo Boys’ favor: the shock of the 1985 wine scandal in Italy, whereby some merchants were cutting the wine with ethanol. To counter this scandal, the Barolo families came together for the first time ever, to dedicate themselves to producing only the highest quality wines from their Nebbiolo grapes. They compared notes of their practices, tasted their wines, and determined as a group which French oak barrique practices seems to yield the best wines. As the film explains it, this team effort—a first for Barolo farmers and what Altare labeled “The Langhe Miracle”—probably had as much to do with the revolution as did the barriques and crop thinning, since they were able collectively to determine what worked best for their grapes.
These new developments in the Langhe Hills soon caught the attention of an enthusiastic Italian/American wine importer, Marco di Grazio, who found the oak-infused Barolo wines exciting, and believed that his American clients would also find them exciting. He had recognized an interest in American wine patrons in moving beyond Chianti with spaghetti with meat balls to new and exciting Italian food and wines. He believed that these new Barolos would become an American hit and yield riches and fame to the Barolo boys. He was right!
By the early 1990s, some of the Langhe Hills producers were receiving the the tres bichierie (3 glasses) award from emerging Italian wine journals such as Gambero Rosso’s The Vin d’Italia guide. These scores were “like receiving an Oscar,” said Chiara Boschis, one of two female members of The Barolo Boys, and the first to win the tres Bichierie with the Barolos she had aged in 100% new French barriques. “We could double our prices for our wines, buy an additional hectare of vines, and recoup our investment in just a few years,” added Allessandro Ceretto. “It changed the economy of a winery.” Just a few years later, the 2000 Barolos received 100 points from the Wine Spectator, the first European wines to be awarded 100 points by this Euro-focused publication!
The money brought in by these blockbuster Barolos exceeded all the money earned by the region over the previous 100 years!
The French oak barriques were key to this success, claims the film’s narrator. “Thanks to the barriques a new taste was created. It was a more powerful flavor, more refined, fuller, rounder, let’s say, that is and was very popular with the Americans, with the ‘judges.’ This wine was made in a certain way so that Parker had to give it 100 points. [Most subscribers to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate are Americans] Shit, you have to make a wine like this to get the tres Bichierie!”
However, it wasn’t just the improved prices that their awards brought them that helped along the Barolo Boys—and Girls. It also brought a touch of glamour for these hard-working young farmers, who traveled to NY City to promote their wines, and where they were feted by their admiring fans. “How great was that?” emphasizes the narrator of the film.
Not all Barolo farmers chose to pursue the 100-point wine scores, however; and as happened with many Barolo producers who courted the wine critics’ palates, their oak-infused Barolos began to lose favor with their fans. After making a big splash and enriching the Langhe Hills beyond Elio Altare’s wildest dreams, some ten years on (when The Barolo Boys film was released and the 19-year-old Elio Atare and his fellow Barolo Boys were in their 60s) many had begun to reconsider their winemaking practices. Many warned of the “vanity of generations,” how each generation tends to forget the legacy of the past. “You have to get back to the origin of things,” says one of the elders. “Without the talented greats, the Barolo Boys would have been just screwing about.” Others questioned the need to go to France to find out how to make wine from their Langhe Hills.
Some believed that the traditional approach to Barolo, which used older, larger neutral casks (preferred by such prestigious appellations as Chateauneuf du Pape) still made the best wines. Marta Rinaldi, one of the two female “Boys,” agrees. She describes how she went back and tasted Barolos from the 1940s made by her father. “Some of these wines made with longer maceration and left longer the neutral oak casks were absolutely sound and excellent,” she said. “So the history of Barolo isn’t written just by modernists.”
Their reminisces nonetheless provide a valuable insight into how a great wine region evolves, and also reminds us of just how recent is this evolution to our modern concept of what makes a great wine. The biggest disagreement as to what exactly is the character and nature of a great wine still seems to revolve around what percentage of new oak to use in each vintage (and even if 225-liter barriques should be used at all).
British importer of Italian wines, David Berry Green, expresses best the dangers of the modernists’ practices of ageing their Barolos in an excess of new oak barriques. When Marco de Grazio brought these new Barolos to Berry-Green, he found in them a common theme. “They were all totally smothered in oak. Where are these wines going?” he wondered. “What do they represent? They were all impressive blockbusters,” he acknowledged, yet “the Nebbiolo grape, its wine, the fruit, has this beautiful capacity to age elegantly. Isn’t that part of the joy of Barolos?” For David Berry-Green, a great wine should evolve naturally in the bottle, not be hastened to early maturity with barriques.
As well, in his Decatur Oct. 2016 report, journalist Stephen Brook notes that while there is still a discernible split in stylistic approaches to Barolos, “the distinction between traditional and modernist [has become] increasingly artificial.” He goes on, “Nor am I fiercely opposed to the use of new oak, so long as it’s not the dominant component. In any case, ludicrously over-oaked wines are becoming scarce. What I seek in a fine Barolo or Barbaresco is finesse . . . .” (“My 10 Top Barolo & Barbaresco Producers,” 84, 85)
“We did go a bit overboard,” admitted Di Grazio, “with the barriques. We needed to dial it back a bit.”
Wine has been part of the civilized world for centuries, yet something revolutionary happened in the last half of the last century, dramatic enough to even penetrate the isolated Langhe Hills. There seems to be no ready explanation as to why, so I turned to that flamboyant Italian/American Marco di Grazio, whose college majors were in Classic Greek Literature. In the closing minutes of Barolo Boys, he ponders the same question.
“Perhaps there was this world, immobile, and all of a sudden we saw something extraordinary in change.” He then turns to Dante’s Inferno, how as a student he was “pissed off that Dante put Ulysses in Hell,” as set out in the Inferno’s Eighth Circle (Counsellors of Fraud), the section on liars and deceivers:
“Ulysses and Diomedes are punished together within a great double-headed flame; they are condemned for the stratagem of the Trojan Horse (resulting in the Fall of Troy), persuading Achilles to sail for Troy (causing Deidamia to die of grief), and for the theft of the sacred statue of Pallas, the Palladium (upon which, it was believed, the fate of Troy depended).” (From Wikipedia)
Later, he began to understand. Ulysses, explains Di Grazio, “dragged along a whole series of people, because he made them dream. Come with me to the end of the world,” he said, without his knowing what lay at the end of the world. “And if the crew later separated, and some stayed in one place and others in another, well, that’s what happens when you sail the seas. It’s been a beautiful journey,” he concludes, smiling somewhat enigmatically.
In the fog-shrouded Langhe Hills, thanks to those audacious Barolo boys and girls, the journey still continues. Elio Altare, who stands by his French barriques, believes that, no matter the style, “a great wine is always good”; others stand by a more traditional approach: “I think Barolo should remain a difficult wine, austere, with its at times aggressive tannins, and with an immediate lack of pleasantness,” said Mr. Rinaldi. “Also, because I believe that in life the easy things are boring” (perhaps the definitive take down of over-oaked wines?)** Yet one thing remains true: “When a farmer offers you a glass of Barolo that he has made, he is offering you a piece of his soul.” (Silvia Marchetti, “The Langhe, Piedmont, where Barolo wine ‘is a piece of a farmer’s soul’” www.theGuardian.com)
*See “Limerick Lane Vineyards” in my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002)
**As Joel Peterson, founder/winemaker Ravenswood, points out in my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002), “You can cover up a lot of defects with too much oak.”
NOTE: “On 22 June 2014, Langhe were inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage list for its cultural landscapes, outstanding living testimony to winegrowing and winemaking traditions that stem from a long history, and that have been continuously improved and adapted up to the present day. (Wikipedia)